The Rila Monastery is the most noted monastic center in Bulgaria.  It burned in 1833, but was then rebuilt between 1834 and 1862.  Its delightfully colorful frescos were completed in 1846.

Here is an interesting example: The inscription (you should be able to read the first three words if you have been following this blog) says, “Holy Archangel Michael Torments the Soul of the Rich Man.” On the image the spelling varies slightly, but we can read it as  С. Архангел Михаил мучит душу богатого — Svyatuiy Arkhangel Mikhail muchit dushu bogatogo.

Michael looks rather glorious in his flowing pastel garments.  But that he is in this scene at all is a bit odd, and it becomes even stranger when we take a look at an earlier painting (c. 1630s) by the Italian Catholic artist Guido Reni:

The main image of Michael in the Bulgarian fresco is obviously ultimately  derived from the earlier image by Reni.  Michael has been given some slight “Orthodox” touches and is simplified in painting technique, but it is the same form overall.

The Reni painting is loosely based on Revelation 12: 7-9 etc.:

7 “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

8 And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, who deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

But in the Rila fresco, the fallen Satan and the Revelation reference is gone, and in their place is the dying Rich Man of the parable in Luke 12: 16:

And he [Jesus]  spoke a parable to them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:

17 And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room in which to bestow my fruits?

18 And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.

20 But God said to him, You fool, this night your soul shall be required of you: then whose shall those things be, which you have provided?

21 So is he that lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Where in Reni’s painting, Michael holds chains in his right hand, in the Rila fresco they are replaced by the little soul of the Rich Man, a half-naked figure clothed only in a loincloth. Michael holds the little soul by its hair.  And though Reni’s Michael has bare legs, the Rila example gives him rosy leggings, called ноговицы — nogovitsui in Russia.

And of course the entire background is different:  gone are the rocks and flames of the Reni painting, replaced by buildings and the Rich Man’s mourners and demons, one of whom holds a bag of money in one hand and a little scroll in the other, with the text “You are mine, O covetous one.”

An engraving mixing the Reni image of Michael with elements found in the Rila fresco was published in Venice in 1811.  Such engravings were a common means by which Western European religious art was transmitted to the Orthodox countries of the East, to Russia, the Balkans, and Greece.

There were also engravings of the subject from Mt. Athos as early as 1807, with an inscription linking the image to the parable of the Rich Man.  One such copper engraving, from 1858, was printed at the Monastery of Simonopetra on Mt. Athos in Greece:


Now you might think this borrowing of Western European Roman Catholic and Protestant religious imagery into Eastern Orthodox iconography might be very rare, if you are one of those with the delusion of a “pure” Eastern orthodox art.  But it was not.  In Russia and other “Orthodox” countries, and even on Mt. Athos, Western European designs were sometimes used as patterns for icons and frescos.

But now to the matter of how the Archangel Michael, who is not mentioned in the parable of the Rich Man as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, happened to end up in icons and frescos of that parable.

In Orthodox iconography, Michael came to be not only the leader of the heavenly armies, but also the one weighing souls at the Last Judgment, holding the scales that balance a man’s good deeds against the bad.  This latter concept was extended to the “weighing” of the deeds of a man at death, when the soul left the body.  So while in some iconography from the 16th to 19th century, Michael is shown in his armor and with his sword as he stands on the body of the dead man and “weighs” his deeds to determine the fate of the soul, this image also became transferred, in the early 19th century, to images based on the parable of the Rich Man, and that is the version we see in the Rila fresco, though in the Rila example the scales of the earlier form are gone.

In any case, images of Michael either standing on a “generic” dead figure or on the more specific body of the Rich Man were sometimes used on side doors of the iconostasis, primarily in the Balkans.

The theme also relates to Russian icons depicting the “Righteous Man and the Sinful Man,” showing the life and fate at death of a pious man as compared to that of his sinful counterpart.  The “death” portion is depicted in this Russian lubok, circa 1800.  At left is the death of the “Rightous Man.”  At right is the death of the “Sinful Man,” which one may compare with the type of The Archangel Michael tormenting the Rich Man.


In a previous posting, I briefly discussed the Akathist hymn and why its component forms the kontakion and the oikos are part of basic knowledge for the study of icons because one often encounters them as texts in icons. I also mentioned that in addition to the famous “original” Akathist to Mary, there are quite a number of other akathists, not only to Mary as represented in her various icons, but also to various saints, the Guardian Angel, etc.

Today we will look at a very common example utilizing one of these akathists: the icon type known in Church Slavic as Всем скорбящим Радость — Vsem Skorbyashchim Radost — ” The Joy of All Who Suffer,” sometimes given as “The Joy of All Who Sorrow.”  In literature one often sees it in its Russian form, Всех Скорбящих Радость — Vsekh Skorbyashchikh Radost.

According to tradition, it first became noted as a supposed “miracle-working” icon in 1688.  The story is that Evfimiya, sister of Patriarch Ioachim, suffered from an incurable disease.  One day while praying, she heard a voice telling her, “Evfimiya!  Go to the Church of the Transfiguration of my son; there is the image called “Joy of All Who Suffer.”  The church was in Moscow, Evfimiy’s residence.  She followed the instructions of the voice and, the account says, was cured.

What this means for our purposes is that we should not expect icons of this type to be earlier than the end of the 17th century, when the icon first gained fame.  The “Joy of All Who Suffer” is an extremely common Marian type in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The basic image is easy to recognize.  It does, however, vary a great deal from example to example, both in the number and kind of secondary figures around Mary, and in the accompanying inscriptions and the text often found in a rectangle at the base.  So translating the texts on one example does not meet they will match those on another.

The basic image depicts Mary standing crowned in the center in an ellipse or mandorla of light. Sometimes she is alone.  In other images she may hold the crowned Christ Child on her left arm (the “Moscow” form), or he may be omitted (as in the “With Coins” variant). She often holds a scepter in her right hand, or she may gesture toward the Child.

Here is one example that includes a number of the “suffering” as well as the frequently-found angels, but in addition, four saints, and at the top the New Testament Trinity, and the images of the sun and the moon:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

As you see, there is lots of writing on banners; these texts are usually taken (with some variation) from the Akathist to the Joy of All Who Suffer, most commonly from Kontakion 2:

Beholding the streams of wonders which pour forth from your holy icon, O most blessed Mother of God, in that you are the good helper of those who pray, the support of the oppressed, the hope of the hopeless, the consolation of those who grieve, the nourisher of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, the chastity of virgins, the guide of strangers, the assistance of those who labor, the restoration of sight to the blind, the clear hearing to the deaf, and the healing of the sick, in you we thankfully sing to God: Alleluia!

Кондак 2
Видяще токи чудес, изливаемыя от святыя Твоея иконы, благая Богородительнице, яко Ты еси молящихся благая помощница, обидимых заступница, ненадеющихся надежда, печальных утешение, алчущих кормительница, нагих одеяние, девственных целомудрие, странных наставница, труждающихся помощь, слепых прозрение, глухих благослышание, больных исцеление, благодарственне вопием о Тебе Богу: Аллилуиа.

Here is a very similar though somewhat later example:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

The text at the bottom of this example, as in many others, is this:

We have seen it before in the discussion of the icon type called “O All-Hymned Mother.”  It is the 13th Kontakion of the Akathist prayer/hymn to Mary, the most popular Marian prayer in Eastern Orthodoxy:

О всепетая Мати, рождшая всех святых Святейшее Слово, нынешнее приношение приемши, от всяких напасти избави всех, и грядущия изми муки, вопиющия Ти: Аллилуиа

O all-hymned Mother worthy of all praise, who brought forth the Word, holiest of all Saints, as you receive this our offering, rescue us all from every calamity, and deliver from future torment those who cry with one voice, Alleluia.

As already mentioned, expect considerable variation from icon to icon of this type.  Some versions are very simple, showing only Mary, or Mary with the Christ Child; others add varying numbers of the suffering, along with angels, saints of one kind or another, and at times even a depiction of those in danger on a ship at sea.


I generally avoid using modern icons, but today’s image is an exception, not only because it is very competently painted, but primarily because it is a good example of its type:

(Courtesy of

It is called Вертоград заключенный — Vertograd zakliuchennuiy — “The Garden Enclosed.”

It is a pleasant type, but peculiar because it is known in old Russian painting only from the classic prototype painted in the so-called “Armory School” (Armory Palace — Оружейная палата — Oruzheinaya Palata) — of the Kremlin by Nikita Pavlovets in latter part of the 17th century (1670s).  So even though the original is often seen in icon books, this type is not one you are likely to find an actual icon of except in modern icon painting based on the old example.  So if someone offers you an “antique” icon of this type, you should immediately be suspicious.

The type is based on verse 4:12 from the Old Testament Song of Solomon (Canticle of Canticles):

A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.”

Though it was not the original meaning, the phrase is understood in iconography as referring to the perpetual virginity of Mary.  It is likely that the original type was influenced by the motif of the Hortus inclusus (“Garden Enclosed”) found in western European Catholic art and literature from around the beginning of the 15th century.

There are several characteristics that indicate the icon above is a modern painting — a fine example of contemporary work by Diana Arkhipova.  Nonetheless, if we compare it with the original below, we can see it differs only in small details and in coloring:

As you see, it depicts Mary in a rather baroque “Paradise Garden” enclosure, richly dressed and holding the crowned Christ child, as a crown is placed on her head by angels.  The sun is at left, and the moon at right.

In both examples the title reads “Image of the Most Holy Mother of God the Garden Enclosed.”

This image is not among the supposedly “wonderworking” icons of Mary, and does not have a day of commemoration in the Church calendar.


Here is the image portion of a Russian icon:



The inscription tells us this fellow is СТ АНОФРИИ ВЕЛИКИЙ.  I hope you know by now that СТ abbreviates Svyatui, meaning “Holy,” which is the Slavic term for a male saint.  The second word in the title is a little off in its spelling.  The writer wrote it as he pronounced it, but it should be written ОНУФРИЙ — Onufriy.  He is the saint the Greeks call Onouphrios (Ὀνούφριος).

The third word in the title inscription is ВЕЛИКИЙ — Velikiy — meaning “[the] Great.”  So this icon depicts “Holy Onouphrios the Great” if we use the Greek form of the name.  In Latin form it is Onuphrius.

As with many Eastern Orthodox saints, there is much uncertainty regarding Onufriy and his authenticity.  He supposedly lived in the 4th century, but that date is uncertain.  As Holweck says, the account of his life is a “medieval romance,” and it is not sure that he ever actually existed.  Someone supposedly named Paphnutios wrote the account of him, but no one is quite certain which Paphnutios this was.

The story is that Paphnutios went out into the desert to look for hermits, wanting to see if others led a more holy life than he.  After four days he came across a dead ascetic in a cave, and buried him.  Several days later he came across another cave, and a living ascetic named Timotheos, who had been in the desert 30 years.  After meeting him, Paphnutios paused at a monastery for rest, then continued his search.  After wandering again for some 17 days he came to some hills, and saw a strange figure approaching him, an ascetic with a long beard, dressed only in leaves.  The sight so frightened Paphnutios that he ran away and up a hill, but the ascetic called him back and explained that he was a hermit who formerly had been a monk in a monastery, and that he had lived alone in the desert for some 60 years.  He dwelt in a cave, living on the dates from a nearby palm, and drank water from a spring.  Onufriy regularly received the Eucharist from an angel, who conveniently showed up each Saturday and Sunday.

After a supper of bread and water that appeared miraculously in the cave at sunset, Paphnutios learned that Onufriy was about to die.  The old man said that God had brought Paphnutios to him just at that time in order to bury him.   Onufriy blessed him, and died.  After his  death Paphnutios covered Onufriy in fabric torn from his clothing, and because the ground was too hard to dig, placed his body in a gap among the rocks.

As soon as this “burial” was accomplished, the cave in which Onufriy had lived collapsed, the date palm withered, and the spring dried up.

This unconvincing tale is rather typical of hagiographic accounts of desert ascetics, but at least the names of Onufriy and Paphnutios appear to be based on actual Egyptian names.

It may seem strange to us that Eastern Orthodox believers depicted and prayed to so many saints who either never existed at all or whose lives were so heavily fictionalized that little or nothing that is certain can be said about them, but before the 20th century what the Church taught in Russia was generally just accepted without question.  The odd thing is that even now in the 21st century, when literacy is widespread and so much more is known, many still do not bother to question or investigate the long list of Eastern Orthodox saints.

Onufriy/Onouphrios/Onuphrius is considered a patron of those in captivity.  The now seldom-used English name Humphrey is a later form of Onuphrios, and his veneration was found also in the Catholic West, where he was a patron saint of weavers.



The Pokrov or “Protection of the Mother of God” is a church festival that is celebrated in Russia on October 1st.  Its origin lies in the story that in the year 902 (some say 911) c.e., the people of Constantinople gathered in the Church of the Vlakhernae (Blachernae), fearing a military invasion; some say the invaders were saracens (muslims), some say a fleet of northerners from what was then called Rus.  During the all-night prayer vigil, Андрей Юродивый — Andrei Yurodivuiy — Andrei  the “Holy Fool” — supposedly had a vision in which he saw Mary standing in the church, taking off her veil, and holding it over the congregation as a covering sign of her protection.  With her were various saints and angels.

The Vlakhernae Church was the repository for several supposed relics of Mary — her veil, her robe, and at least a portion of her belt.

The Feast of the Protection/Covering was promoted in Russia by the 12th-century Andrei Bogoliubskiy (later declared a saint), who is said to have had his own vision of Mary protecting Russia, so the Pokrov is also seen as a “national” icon.

Let’s look at the title inscription:

It reads:

The bracketed letters are those omitted by abbreviation.
Transliterated, it is:

You should remember the word Obraz, meaning “image.”
Pokrova is the “of” form of Pokrov.  Pokrov means “protection,” but also “covering” or “shroud.”
Presvyatuiya, as you will recall from previous postings, is the “of” form of Presvyataya (f.), “Most Holy.”
Bogoroditsui is the “of’ form of Bogoroditsa, meaning “God-Birthgiver,” or in English order, “Birthgiver of God.”  It is the Slavic equivalent of the Greek Theotokos.  Because “Birthgiver of God” is awkward in English, it is usually loosely translated as “Mother of God.”  So, putting all of this together, the inscription reads:


The Pokrov may be sparingly depicted, with only a few figures, sometimes only with Mary holding her veil; but many examples are quite detailed, such as that shown here:

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

We see Mary appearing in the air in the center of the church (it is an interior view), with apostles at left and John the Forerunner (Baptist) at right with more saints, including various Church Fathers, and above them are angels.  In this example Mary looks toward Jesus at upper left.  She holds a scroll, which the podlinniki tell us should read:

Царю небеснии сыну и боже мой приими всяаго человека призывающаго имя твое и мое на всяком месте…

Heavenly King, my son and God, receive every man who calls on your name and mine in every place…

Below, crowded between the fellow on the  ambo (dais) and the separate scene at lower right, stands the Holy Fool Andrei (Andreas/Andrew), pointing out the vision to his disciple Epifaniy (Epiphanios)

There are two odd things about the Pokrov type:  first, it is given far more importance by Russians than by Greeks.  Second, it contains scenes some four hundred years apart.

The Pokrov, as already mentioned, is said to have happened in the early 900s.  But that fellow in deacon’s garments standing on the dais at lower center is Roman (Romanos) the Melodist, called in Russia Роман Сладкопевец — Roman Sladkopevets — “Roman the Sweet-singer” —  who lived in the late 400s-early 500s c.e.  His story is that he led the singing in an all-night vigil, but after the others left he was unhappy with his talents, and prayed to have a voice worthy of singing the praises of Mary.  He fell asleep in the church and had a dream in which Mary appeared to him and gave him a scroll to eat (that is the scene at bottom right).  He awoke, and later again sang in the church, and all were amazed at his voice.  He wrote a great many church melodies with words (kontakia).

To the left of Roman stands Patriarch Tarasiy (Tarasios) of Constantinople, and to his left is the byzantine Emperor Leo VI, in whose reign the pokrov supposedly happened; and just above Leo is his wife, Empress Zoe.

Here is a rather grand rendition of the “Pokrov” icon that adds the figure of Jesus with angels and seraphim above Mary.  This example places Emperor Leo at lower left, and wife Empress Zoe at lower right.  On the church we see the five domes of a Russian-style church, and at right an additional dome on the bell tower.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Here is a version painted with more flatness of color and less sparkle.

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(Courtesy of

Now we have to consider why the Pokrov was considered an important festival in Russia.  The reasons might surprise you.

First, coming in the autumn, it happened when the harvesting of crops had ended, and ordinary people finally had time for other things, chief among them weddings.  So the Pokrov marked the beginning of the “marrying season” in Russia.

This, of course, put the thought of future marriage in young girl’s heads, and so on the Pokrov they would light a candle before the icon in church.  It was said that the first girl to light her candle would be the first to marry.  Prayers were said to “Father Pokrov” (note how the festival is anthropomorphized) and Paraskeva Pyatnitsa (a patron of marriage), asking that the girl’s head might be “covered” (thus the connection with Mary covering the congregation with her veil).  But by this they were asking to be married, because married Russian women covered their hair in public.

So this concept of pokrov — of covering — took on a symbolic meaning in Russian life, and was associated with nature, because the October date of Pokrov made it the time of year with the earth began to be covered in dead leaves, and the early snow fell to protect the ground through the harshness of winter, white as the cloth covering a maiden’s head at marriage.

There is much more to be said about the Pokrov and the customs and beliefs associated with it in Russian folk life.  If such things interest you, an excellent book to read is Ivan the Fool: Russian Folk Belief, (Glas, English translation 2007) by Andrei Sinyavsky.  The book is rich in information relating to icons in Russia.

The liturgical phrase generally associated with the Pokrov is the kontakion for the feast, tone 3, generally found on the scroll held by Roman the Melodist:

“Дева днесь предстоит в Церкви, и с лики святых невидимо за ны молится Богу: ангели со архиереи покланяются, апостоли же со пророки ликовствуют: нас бо ради молит Богородица Превечнаго Бога”

“The Virgin today stands in the church, and with choirs of invisible saints prays to God for us.  Angels and bishops [literally arch-priests] venerate her, apostles with prophets rejoice, because for our sake the Mother of God prays to the God before the ages.

In icons of Roman shown alone (not Pokrov icons), the text on the scroll he holds is usually the Christmas (Nativity) kontakion, considered his first composition:

“Дева днесь Пресущественнаго раждает, и земля вертеп Неприступному приносит, Ангели с пастырьми славословят, волсви же со звездою путешествуют, нас бо ради родися Отроча Младо, Превечный Бог”.

“The Virgin today gives birth to the One Above all, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable; angels with shepherds praise, and Magi journey with the star.  For our sake is born the youthful boy, God before the ages.”

The story that Mary gave Romanos a scroll to eat, after which he could sing and compose well, relates to the word for his verse/hymn form, and later to that of others as well — kontakion.  It is said to come from the Greek κόνταξ — kontax — meaning the wooden rod around which a scroll was wound.  It could thus be used to mean a scroll or a writing on a scroll, and so from the legend of the scroll Romanos supposedly ate, we get kontakion as a name for the verse/hymn form.  At least that is the supposition.

As you can see from the examples on this page, the saints and their numbers in Pokrov images vary from icon to icon of the type.

As mentioned earlier, the Pokrov is celebrated on October 1.  Further, Andrei the Holy Fool is celebrated on October 2nd, and Romanos the Melodist is celebrated on October 14th.


Here is an icon of one of the “special needs” saints, Kharlampiy.  The Greeks call him Χαράλαμπος  — Kharalambos.  He was considered the fellow to pray to for protection from plagues and fevers, etc.  As with the old pre-Christian gods, it was considered risky not to properly commemorate him, because he was likely to take revenge for the slight by releasing the plague on you.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

The image shows Kharlampiy in the center, and at the sides are four scenes from the traditional account of his martyrdom in the 3rd century.

We are looking at Kharlampiy today for a different reason, however.  We want to to translate the Church Slavic title at the top of the icon.  The little image in the center is the icon type known as the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus, which I have discussed in a previous posting.

The first word is slightly worn, but nonetheless we should be able to determine that it is an abbreviation (see the horizontal curved line above it that tells us so?).

The obvious letters in it are ОБР –OBR.  The O is the old “omega” form, this letter:

If you were paying attention yesterday (didn’t you have anything else to do?), you will recall that ОБ and Р are the first three letters of the word oбразъ — obraz — meaning “image.”

Yesterday we also looked at some useful Church Slavic words based on the root cвятъ — svyat — meaning “holy.”  The next word in Kharlampiy’s inscription is another of those “svyat” words.  It is slightly abbreviated here as СВТИТЛЯ —SVTITLYA.  In full, the word is СВЯТИТЕЛЯ — SVYATITELYA.  This is an “of” form of the word Святитель — Svyatitel.  It means “archpriest,” but it is also often used for “bishop.”  You can see that Kharlampiy is wearing a bishop’s stole or omophorion.  So here we can translate it as “bishop.”  The word svyatitel is related to the verb that means “to make holy, to consecrate.”  And of course a bishop is consecrated in a special ceremony.

I hope you noticed that when I type Church Slavic, I put it into a modern Russian font that is basically the same as Church Slavic except for a few letters.  One of those letters is the Russian Я, pronounced “ya.”  But if you look at the inscription on the icon, you will see that the letter used looks very different.  It is the Church Slavic form of “ya”, shown here in upper and lower case:


There is also another Church Slavic letter that has the same “ya” sound.  It looks like this:


Sometimes writers of Slavic inscriptions use one form, sometimes the other.  But in the modern Russian font, both of these are represented by Я.

Now let’s look at the last word in the inscription.  It is the saint’s personal name, and it is written in full:


You can see that for the final letter, the writer has used the second form of the Church Slavic “ya”:


This name, like the word SVYATITELYA preceding it, is in the “of” form.  You can see that both have a -ya ending to show this.  In its normal form, it would be written as ХАРЛАМПИЙ — KHARLAMPIY.

Now let’s put it all together to translate the title inscription:

“Image [of] Bishop Kharlampiy”

Even though both Svyatitelya and Kharlampiya have the ending indicating they are in the “of” form, we only need to use “of” once when translating into English.  And we can also add the word “the,” which as you know, Church Slavic does not have.  So we can give the English meaning of this icon inscription as:


So you see, reading Church Slavic inscriptions is not difficult.  It is just that in learning a bit of Church Slavic, we have to keep in mind that it is one of the most useless languages in existence for most anything practical except reading icon inscriptions — and we can hardly even call that practical now, can we?  But what practical person is likely to read this site?  Or for that matter, write it?





(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Learning a little basic Church Slavic is essential to the study of Russian icons. Do not think you have to learn the entire language in order to read most icons. Icon inscriptions are very repetitive, so a little learning brings big results.

What you will learn here will be very easy and practical, and will really advance your understanding of icons, so do not be intimidated by the unfamiliar.

Here is an important Church Slavic word and its meaning:

Svyat — holy

Sometimes you will see this inscription on icons:

Свя́тъ, свя́тъ, свя́тъ
Svyat, svyat, svyat

And now you already know how to read it. Yes, it is “Holy, holy, holy.” It comes from the Bible, found both in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8.

By the way, the letter ъ at the end is just a so-called “hard mark.” It is silent, and I usually omit it in transliteration.

Now let’s expand our knowledge. From the word Svyat, we get more icon words. Two of the most common and very important are:




 They are the words used to mean “saint” in icons. Both words literally mean “holy.”

Svyatui is the form of the word used for the title of male saints.

Svyataya is the form of the word used for the title of female saints.

When an icon inscription says “of” this or that saint – “of the holy” — the word “of” is not actually written. Instead, it is indicated by changing the ending of Svyatuiy or Svyataya, like this:

Svyatago – means “of the Holy” for a male saint or male noun.

Svyatuiya – means “of the Holy” for a female saint or noun.

You can see that all we are doing with these words is changing the ending of the word Svyat.  So to the root Svyat,

We add –ui for a male: Svyatui.

We add –aya for a female: Svyataya.

We add –ago for “of the holy” for a male: Svyatago.

We add –uiya for “of the holy” for a female: Svyatuiya.

And for completeness, if the noun is neuter, we add the –oe ending. The neuter “of the holy” ending is the same as the masculine: -ago. So it becomes Svyatago.

Church Slavic often uses abbreviations. Both Svyatuiy and Svataya are commonly abbreviated as S or SV or ST, but abbreviation can vary in the number of letters used. Remember that abbreviated words are generally indicated by a curved horizontal line above the abbreviation.

If we want to say “of the holy” for several saints, we add the ending -uikh for male saints:

Svyatuikh – “of the holy” (male plural)

And for “of the holy for several female saints, we add the same ending:

 Svyatuikh – “of the holy” (female plural)

There is a prefix – pre-, used to mean roughly “most” or “very,” or “extremely.” Look what happens when we add it to the word Svyataya for a female saint:

Presvyataya – “most holy.”

Presvyataya is an absolutely essential word to know, because it is used in one form or another on countless icons of Mary. Why? Because on icons, Mary is titled the “Most Holy Mother of God.’

You will remember that the female form of “of the holy” is Svyatuiya. It only makes sense then, that the female form of “of the most holy” is Presvyatuiya.

Now let’s add more to our vocabulary:

Bog – God

A roditsa is a female who gives birth, a birthgiver. If we add Bog – “God” — to that, it becomes:

Bogoroditsa – God-birthgiver, or more commonly, “Birthgiver of God.”

Bogoroditsa is the standard title for Mary in icons, because in Eastern Orthodoxy, she is considered the one who gives birth to God, that is, to Jesus. It is simply the Church Slavic translation of the Greek title ΘΕΟΤΟΚΟC – Theotokos.

Now we can use two words together:

Presvyatuiya – Most Holy
Bogoroditsa – Birthgiver of God

That gives us the title of Mary found on countless icons. Because “Birthgiver of God” sounds awkward in English, it is generally translated more loosely as “Mother of God.” So we get:

 Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsa – Most Holy Mother of God.

Marian icons generally have an identifying title, like “of Kazan,” “of Vladimir” and so on. If we add such an identifier to “Most Holy Mother of God, we get the title found on such icons:

Kazanskiya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui

That gives us “Kazan-of Most Holy Mother of God,” or as we say in English,

“The Kazan Most Holy Mother of God.”

Often the Russian form of the identifier is used in modern writing. Where Church Slavic has the –iya ending for identifier words like Kazanskiya, Russian uses –aya:

“The Kazanskaya Most Holy Mother of God.”

Or we can just call it the “Kazanskaya” or the “Kazan” image in brief.

Finally, for today, one more common icon word:

Obraz – image

One finds obraz on many icons at the beginning of the title, used like this:


Obraz Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui Troeruchitsui

 It means, very literally:

 “Image [of] Most-holy God-birthgiver – Three-handed”

 Remember that neither Church Slavic nor Russian has the word “the,” so we have to supply it when translating into English; and because English word order is different, we move things around a bit, like this:

“The Image of the Three-handed Most Holy Mother of God”

Now if we look again at the icon at the top of this page, we find it is titled:

КОРСУНСКИЯ  ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ (the last two words are abbreviated)
Korsunskiya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui

From what you have learned today, you should be able to translate that as:

“The Korsun Most Holy Mother of God.”

You may wish to know that the Korsun type is another of those Marian images quite mistakenly attributed by tradition to St. Luke.  It is said to have been brought from Korsun to Kiev in 988 c.e (the year of the conversion of Kievan Rus’ to Eastern Orthodoxy by edict).  Then over the years, it went from Kiev to Novgorod in the North, and then on to Moscow.  Another tradition says that it came to Russia at the end of the 12th century.  But as we have learned, icon traditions should not be taken too seriously.

Korsun, also known as Kherson and Cherson, is in Crimea, the area of the Ukraine recently invaded and claimed illegally in 2014 by Russia.  It is said to be the place where Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized into Eastern Orthodoxy.  He is the fellow who made conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy obligatory for his people.